The rumor mill has been churning in Columbia of late as demolition of three houses in the 1000 block of South Main Street, opposite of Dairy Queen and near the Route 3 intersection, took place.
Thomas Rollins, a partner in Land of Lincoln Investment Corp., owners of the properties in question, told the Republic-Times that the buildings have been vacant for about three months and it was just time for them to come down.
“I’ve heard plenty of the rumors myself,” he said after joking that a federal prison would be going in the lots when asked what plans were for that area.
“There are no plans for now. No one has contacted us about purchasing the lots,” Rollins confirmed when asked about future use of the property, reiterating that the houses are being torn down because they are no longer being used.
The buildings were being leased to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, local police agencies and tactical units for different types of training, including K-9 response scenarios.
The activity in the area also gained the attention of several Columbia city officials since the GM&O Heritage Trail, still in development and the recent subject of debate with the Gedern Village Homeowners Association, is slated to be developed behind the properties on South Main Street.
There was a light agenda for the Dec. 21 meeting of the Columbia City Council, and a good part of the public session was spent discussing the GM&O Trail.
After the closed session of the Dec. 7 meeting, Ward IV Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz requested the council discuss a letter concerning the trail sent to the council by Columbia Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Chairman Joe Sander.
Sander proposed the idea of using the abandoned rail line as a “community nature trail” to the city council in 1986.
The latest letter advised caution to ensure “that no development puts at risk our ability to retain that section to complete the southern end of the trail,” Niemietz summarized.
“I can predict what (developers) will want – that portion of the trail itself for an access road in and out of their property,” Sander assumed as a likelihood if the trail section is not completed in a timely manner.
Niemietz shared Sander’s sentiment given the trouble the city has had recently with the use of the public walking trail through the private Gedern Village subdivision.
“What happened the last time the city ‘gave away’ a section of the trail? You’re dealing with that now on the Gedern Village section,” the letter read.
That issue was brought to a head in September when members of the subdivision filed court documents to prevent the city from proceeding with fence construction along the trail within Gedern Village. The city and subdivision representatives have been working to settle the matter out of court since an Oct. 1 meeting of the two entities.
After Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm confirmed that owners of the South Main properties had not contacted the city with any plans for the lots, Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson assured the council that the owners are aware of and support the trail and greenway projects Columbia has planned.
“When discussion starts (about the future of the area), we just need to make sure they know how important (the trail) is to citizens,” he said.
Niemietz was still hesitant, reminding the council “that was the same feeling on the northern end of the trail that prevailed at the time and then the mayor and aldermen position changed… and suddenly the trail was sold off.”
Sander echoed that in his letter, stating that while current members of the council “want this complete… within six months you could have a mayor and majority of council members who are more ‘developer oriented’ than ‘pro trail.’”
Columbia City Engineer Chris Smith reminded the council the city owns the right of way and property for future trail development.
The discussion seems to be mostly precautionary, as Rollins expressed a desire to work with the city.
“As developers, we like to think about what would enhance the city,” Rollins said, adding he is a supporter of conservation efforts such as Clifftop and he has already put a trail on different property near the South Main lots.
“We are very conscious of what people want,” he continued, expressing admiration of the work Columbia has done recently.
“It’s all about what works at the time,” Rollins said. “And the city is doing it right, right now.”
Of lesser concern, minutes from the Dec. 7 meeting indicate the Union Pacific railroad company, who has worked amicably with the city before, has been in contact with officials regarding using right of way on the trail to access a railroad control box near the soccer fields on the north end of the city west of I-255.
Sander suggested the city “negotiate an annual usage fee” with Union Pacific to generate funds to complete the trail.
“Let’s finish what we started,” Sander concluded, noting that the trail has been given low priority from the city.
He noted that a wetlands project has been completed, Creekside Park has moved forward and discussion has begun concerning a dog park since 2017, with no work being done on the trail since then.
“Take the steps to give Mr. Smith, a very talented engineer, the mandate to get this done before the views of a new council majority doom it. Give Mr. Brimm the mandate to negotiate with (Union Pacific) to generate some income to move the project along.”